We had the opportunity to visit the Silk Farm in Siem Reap. They offer free guided tours during business hours, and because our family constitutes a relatively large group, they actually sent a shuttle bus straight to our hotel to pick us up and drop us back off again after the tour, which worked out perfectly for us.
Maybe it's because I have a long-standing fascination with fashion, cloth, and sewing in general, but this tour was a highlight of the trip for me. I thought I'd give you all a glimpse of how the silk-making process goes:
The whole process begins with the cultivation and pruning of mulberry trees--a silkworm's favorite thing to eat! Our guide explained to us that there are many different varieties of mulberry trees, and in addition to being munched on by silkworms, humans can use them in a variety of ways, one of which involves steeping the leaves in order to make mulberry tea.
This is the building where the silkworms are housed. It is built up off of the ground, and everywhere where it touches the ground, the posts are sunk in a pool of water. This is to help prevent ant infestation. The ants want to come in and eat the silkworms!
He's showing us the trays of just-hatched baby silk worms. They were incredibly tiny, and a very dark gray, nearly black, sort of color. Hard to imagine that they grow to become these:
Not-yet fully grown silkworms. Munching away.
These silkworms are finally done eating and are in the beginning stages of making their coccoons.
The guide showed us cocoons that are unusable for making silk. If the silkworms are allowed to mature into the moths that metamorphosis turns them into, their cocoons are no longer usable for silk. Therefore, most silkworms at a silk farm are not allowed to complete the process of metamorphosis, although a certain percentage are, for breeding purposes. Apparently, you can actually tell a male apart from a female simply by looking at the cocoon, although I wasn't very good at guessing.
The outer layer of the cocoon is what is spun into raw silk, which has a rougher texture. The cocoons are boiled together, and strands from 50-80 individual cocoons are wound into a single thread.
After the outer layer of raw silk has been removed, the rest of the cocoon is made of a finer fiber which is spun into fine silk. This silk thread is much smoother and shinier than the raw silk thread. You can tell that the cocoons in this lady's pot are much smaller than those in the first lady's pot, because these cocoons have already had the layer of raw silk removed.
Before the silk is dyed, it is bleached and degummed. The guide showed us some of the items used to make different colors of natural dyes, though he said that these days, about 90% of what their company produces uses artificial dyes because they are cheaper and produce a more uniform color.
This machine spins the silk thread from the large spools onto small spools that will be used later in the process of making silk fabric.
Some of the thread is then spread onto a frame like this. Pieces of plastic are tied around wefts of thread in an intricate and precise pattern, and then the thread is dip-dyed. The parts of the thread that were covered with plastic don't get dyed, and so the thread takes on a repeating color pattern. Think tie-dye, but on a way higher level. The pattern that this lady is tying into her thread, when woven, will, due to the patterned dying, bear the same pattern as the patterned cloth hanging in the background. Isn't that incredible?
This lady is spinning the thread that has been dyed into a precise pattern onto smaller sticks, which you can see lying in a row in front of her. These sticks are numbered in order, so that the weavers know which one to take next when one stick ends, so that the pattern will continue to match properly.
And here is a scarf-in-progress on the loom. You can see that it's being made with the same purple and turquoise thread that the previous lady was putting onto numbered sticks.
The Angkor Silk Farm, we were told, is a training center. The people currently training in different aspects of silk fabric production there will go back to their own villages to carry on their work once they have finished their training period.
The Silk Farm tour ended at a shop showcasing their wares. After you've seen the long and involved process of making the fabric, it becomes abundantly clear why anything made from handwoven silk is expensive! Prices for this fabric should be high, because of the sheer number of man-hours required to make it. I really enjoyed wandering the shop and seeing finished products, and came out with just a little piece of silk of my very own:
It's a little wallet, just about as big as my palm. It's perfect for me since I only carry a small purse. Shhh! I'm technically not supposed to remember this since it's for my birthday....